Insider stories for fanboys
Avaliado nos Estados Unidos em 25 de outubro de 2012
I used to think of myself as a Marvel comic book fan. I have read the comics since 1976 and into the 1990s (the clone saga did it for me, it was my Kronstadt) and have collected some of the key titles. I own an almost complete run of the John Byrne Uncanny X-Men, the Frank Miller Elecktra (per the cover) introduction story in Daredevil and a complete run of Amazing Spiderman into the 1980s (granted, parts of it are made up of the Italian and Colombian versions, but still...). After reading this book, I stand corrected. I knew nothing or nearly. Here it is, in all its lurid glory, the story of Marvel comics.
Virtually all important creators were nutters: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber. Don't let's even mention Steve Ditko. And I don't mean that in a nice way: they were geniuses, but by the end of their lives they all seem to have become unmoored from reality.
The company has spent a third of its story surviving bankruptcy after been driven into the ground by unscrupulous empire-builders, greenmailers and speculators (particularly ghastly were Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn).
Another third has been about infighting between management and talent, between artists and scriptwriters, between the lawyers of all the preceding categories (virtually everyone has sued Marvel at some point in time); official mascot Stan Lee is quoted in the book as having said the following:
"I've created a number of characters for Marvel that have been successful, but when I created them, I knew they were the property of the company. That was the understanding; that had always been the procedure. For me to suddenly start saying, `Wait a minute, I wrote that, I'm going to sue,' to my way of thinking, that would be dishonest. I had the right to leave at any time and if I felt I was so good I could create characters and make a fortune, I had every right to do it. And I think any artist or writer who doesn't want to work for us doesn't have to sign the contract, he's perfectly welcome to, with no hard feelings."
Howe, Sean (2012-10-09). Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Kindle Locations 4269-4274). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
However, a company bearing his name, created by him and an scrupulous operator, has sued the company for intellectual property rights. I'm told this wasn't Lee's choice, nor will it benefit him personally.
And the remaining third of Marvel's life seems to have been spent in political infighting of a remarkable beastliness. Jim "Trouble" Shooter (editor-in-chief between 1978 and 1989), who joined the company as an intern aged 14, appears to have been a particularly nasty piece of work. The book is full of unpleasantness, backstabbing, rampant egotism and dirty games. So reading about decent, talented people like the John Romitas (senior and junior) and the Buscema brothers (both mistreated at Marvel) comes in like a breath of fresh air. For me, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson as portrayed by Romita senior are still the loveliest females depicted in comics.
Reading the book, contrary to my expectation, made me like Marvel less. It is truly a "warts-and-all" portrait. Also, I sometimes got lost in the layers of Bizantine intrigue, in spite of being familiar with most or all the writers, artists and characters, and many of the storylines ("narrative arcs"). The book would make a good case study for a business school strategy course, since it highlights the inherent contradiction in running a business dependent on unusual talent, but without being too dependent on said talent (which is why management always took characters away from their creators). This explains the cross-over craze (where complex and convoluted plots develop across many or all company titles so that they are impossible to follow unless you read -buy- all of them). It also explains the overexposure of once thrilling characters like Wolverine, Elektra or Spiderman and the withering of many others taken off the spotlight to focus on those the public likes at a particular time. And the reason why some Marvel character movies are schlocky (v.gr., Daredevil, Elektra or the Fantastic Four) whereas others are pretty good or even great (v.gr., Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man, Avengers) and others never get made (v.gr., Dr. Strange): short-sighted managers looking for their next bonus often sold TV, movie or merchardising rights to whomever would pay regardless of whether a quality portrayal could be expected. It also explains the reason for the periodic killing of iconic characters or the relaunch of the same, to the annoyance of the fanboys and the indifference of pretty much everybody else. Comics seems to be a dying art form, at least at the majors (DC and Marvel). Indisputably its best days are behind.
And yet... The book also describes the creative processes that led to that amazing burst of creative energy of the early 60s that gave us The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spiderman, The Mighty Thor and other formidable characters that gave joy to generations of children. These children are now adults, and it seems some never outgrew them, since according to the book the typical Marvel reader is a 30 year old male (aka Fanboy). Attempts to reach the next generation of eight year olds have been failing at least since the mid-80s. But what we felt when we read these comic books for the first time 20, 30 or 40 years ago will never entirely vanish.
I take away one star because the book is mainly for insiders and even those that feel well informed may struggle to keep up. I take away another because the Kindle version has no photographs of the people mentioned in the book (a huge cast) or of Marvel artwork. If you cannot make up your mind whether to purchase this book and you like comics, I recommend that you go and purchase the recent Marvel Essentials about Adam Warlock. The second part, which includes the Jim Starlin years, will show you Marvel at its best, when creativity and talent were allowed to run amok.
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